Friday, January 20, 2017

Castles in the Air by Bryony Rheam

The afternoon is still bright as the electricity clicks off. The sky is a deep blue and the garden is alive with the softness of butterflies as we make the rounds of flower pots with our watering can. My little girl holds it clumsily over each mass of flowers while I hold the bottom and push it upwards so the water sprays out through the spout. The pink of the daisies contrasts starkly with the soft brown of the garden. At the bottom of the rectangular strip of ragged lawn looms an enormous green-grey cactus, its many flat, round hands frozen in a manic mime of a wave. I collect the debris of tea things and load them on the cane tray: a teapot and a chipped milk jug with a cracked handle; a mug and a child’s cup and saucer with a soggy digestive island in a shallow sea of cold tea.
Inside, it is dark. The sun has begun to turn from the house and already there is a coolness in the kitchen, that faint reminder it is winter, however warm the afternoon has been. I grab lightweight jerseys and the house keys, and we trot off down the drive to the gate. We have escaped back into the light as we walk down the road. Motes of dust rise and fall in what shafts of sunlight manage to penetrate the jacarandas that line the road and stretch across it, branches touching like a couple in an old-fashioned country dance.
We pass people on their way home: a man in a weathered suit and a grey hat perched jauntily on his head clatters by on his bicycle with a nod and a smile; a woman walks briskly past, her maid’s uniform hanging shapelessly from her, a little too long and a little too big. A gardener with an old, fat Staffordshire Bull Terrier ambles slowly along. They make an interesting couple; the man himself is old, too, but he is upright in a dignified manner. The dog is short and squat. Despite the gentle walk, he pants hard and his pink tongue lolls out of his mouth. His owners live in Australia, but he and the gardener live at number seventeen, up the road. Two runners in Lycra shorts and vests overtake us, earplugs in, sweat glistening on their faces. They hardly look our way, so intent are they on their run.
We pass a motley of houses, some old, in disrepair, with chickens pecking in the dust and mangy dogs who bark and snarl behind buckled ribbons of barbed wire fences, but run, tail between bony, twisted legs, at even the smallest movement towards them on our part. Old post boxes, paint peeling, lean apathetically in at misshapen gates tied together with electrical wire and torn plastic bags. Occasionally, there are remnants of a name: Utopia, The Range, Pathways. Dusty driveways lead to ramshackle houses whose doors are always bolted shut and at whose windows curtains are irregularly looped.
Rusty metal archways, which once bent under the heaviness of honeysuckle and jasmine, now lean drunkenly across paths that lead to fragments of entertainment areas; cracked paving stones end abruptly at yellowed grass and sandy outcrops where nothing grows. The sad, dark windows of the houses look out on empty swimming pools and skeletons of flower- beds, the once-ambitious desires of long-gone owners for middle class respectability. The tennis courts have been dug up, some optimistically ploughed into vegetable patches where clumps of chomolia are the only signs of green. Ragged squares of asphalt hint at the dreams of the past. A straggle of bauhinias along a fence leans, not so much with the weight of the trees, but with the wait of the years.
One of the houses issues a sign of life. A dog yaps, a child looks shyly round the carcass of a rotting car, a mother shakes nappies from a collapsing washing line and folds them into a bucket. The veranda of the house is piled high with old furniture and machinery and wound round with a piece of rope – a vague warning to any potential trespassers to keep away.
‘That’s a witch’s house,’ whispers Rosie, her finger on her mouth. ‘She keeps children and eats them. Ssh! Let’s go past quietly.’ We tiptoe along the dry grass verge, exaggerating our movements and sharing a suppressed giggle. The child watches us, a shy smile on her face, then runs to her mother’s side. A black car with tinted windows roars down the road and I pull Rosie to my side.
‘It’s all right,’ she says in a matter of fact tone of voice. ‘If it hits me, I’ll just fly away. Fairies can do that, you see. We never die.’ The car turns in at the gate of the house and the scrawny dog rushes out, hackles up, barking. The woman calls to someone in the house and the child shrinks back into the shadows as a man comes out the house and kicks the dog. He opens the gate, but the car doesn’t go in.
‘That’s the witch’s servant,’ Rosie informs me with a knowing glance. ‘He’s an evil goblin who has to work for her for a hundred years because he once tried to steal her cat.’
 An arm stretches out the window of the car and hands the man a small brown packet then hangs limply over the door. The man talks, he nods, gives a brief wave and the car reverses, the exhaust booming like a foghorn in the night. Rosie nods as though this confirms some long-held suspicion of hers.
At the corner of the road is our favourite house. Cinderella’s house. It is small, but neatly compact. The garden is empty of rusting cars and bedraggled dogs. The low hedge of Christ thorn is always kept trimmed and a small hand-painted sign asks you to please close the gate after you. Not a blade of grass survives the daily sweeping routine, but, on the veranda, an oasis blooms. Palms and cacti proliferate from tin cans and plastic yoghurt cartons. Various succulents spill out of old ice cream containers and creep down the side of the veranda wall.
In the middle of it all is a chair and table and this is where we imagine Cinderella sits and surveys her humble surroundings. It is here that she meets with her friends the squirrel and the mouse and tells them of her life before she was confined to being a servant. It is here that she sings as she mends her ragged clothes in the evening and it is here, on this very chair, that she will sit while the prince fits the glass slipper on her foot and discovers who she really is.
During the day, Cinderella may be found in front of the house managing a small stall, an upside down box on which she has placed sweets, single cigarettes, tomatoes and phone cards. She is tall and thin and today she wears a tight fitting black top and has wrapped a brightly coloured piece of material around her for a skirt. We stop to survey her wares, Rosie picking up and turning over each sweet.
‘The magic ones are red,’ she whispers to me. ‘Those are the ones that make you fly.’
Cinderella smiles. She often joins in Rosie’s game. I choose an orange sweet.
‘No, no,’ says Rosie, her hand on mine. ‘Those ones make you freeze.’ She stands still, as though playing a game of musical statues. ‘Then you can’t move until the wizard of the snowy mountains says the spell.’
‘The wizard of the snowy mountains?’ I say, replacing the sweet on the box.
‘Ye-es,’ Rosie assures me with a firm nod of her head, as though she cannot believe I have not heard this information before. She looks for confirmation from Cinderella who nods her head at me.
‘Well, best to stick to flying,’ I say, picking up a red sweet and handing Cinderella a couple of coins.
‘Thank you,’ Rosie whispers to me as we move away. ‘Now she can buy the material for her dress for the ball.’
At the corner of the next road, Rosie slows considerably and her voracious talk dies away to nothing. She looks up at me uncertainly, a finger pressing down her bottom lip, and then across at a dark shape seated next to a fire. The shape does not register our presence. He sits on an old paint tin, huddled over the small flames, poking and prodding them to life. His long hair is matted into thick, twisted coils. All around him is the debris of suburban life: empty tins that once contained baked beans and tuna fish and Woolworths Extra Thick Cream of Asparagus Soup. An empty bottle of conditioner for dull, lifeless hair and a tub of Vaseline. There are boxes and tins and packets and wrappers, each inspected carefully for any remnants that may exist. He talks, but not to us.
‘Who’s he talking to?’ my daughter asks, squeezing my hand.
‘No one,’ I reply, still in a whisper, as though he will suddenly notice we are there watching him.
‘How can you speak to no one?’ she wonders suspiciously.
‘Maybe they’re invisible,’ I say, knowing this will rest better with her.
‘Yes, maybe,’ she says, a hint of excitement in her voice. ‘Is he a giant? He looks very big.’
‘Yes, I think he is,’ I say. ‘He’s a big, angry giant and he’s turned his servant invisible because he was cheeky to him.’
‘Or maybe,’ she replies, after thinking a couple of moments, ‘maybe his servant wants to be invisible to teach the giant a lesson.’
I nod in agreement. ‘That’s right. He stole the giant’s invisible spell and the giant is cross because he can’t see where his servant is and whenever he thinks he’s found him, he moves.’
She giggles and at that moment, the man turns to rummage through an old hessian bag. Tins clank and something rustles and we jump and carry on our journey. We are approaching new country; even the light is changing. It is a deep green, the green of tranquillity, of assurance, of money. To get there, we need to cross the Magic River.
‘Quickly! Over the Magic River! One, two, pink and blue, magic, magic, keep us safe and true.’ Rosie jumps over a ditch and waits for me to do the same. I take an exaggerated leap. ‘Aah, you didn’t say the magic!’ she says, despairing at my lack of knowledge of these things. ‘All fairies have to say the magic otherwise the goblin will make their boats sink.’
‘Their boats?’ I ask incredulously as I look down at the ditch laced with empty Chibuku cartons and condom packets. I can quite easily imagine a goblin hiding amongst the rubbish waiting to purloin any unsuspecting wayfarer, but I am a little more sceptical about fairy boats for it is winter and the ditch is dry.
‘Yes, the fairies sail their boats from here every evening to go back to Fairyland.’
 I go back and invoke her little charm and then jump across the ditch again.
‘Don’t let the goblin get you,’ she squeals. ‘I can see his hands and the top of his head!’ She grabs my hand. ‘Whew! You’re okay. I’m so glad.’
We pass the row of houses that have been saved the shame of decline and converted into the regional headquarters of aid organisations. Their gardens have been turned into squares of carpark with blue and white striped awnings to protect the shiny vehicles parked beneath. They have signs on the walls with slogans like ‘One World, One Future’ and a little sentry box in which a security guard sits with a school exercise book in which to record all the comings and goings of all the shiny vehicles. Next to them is a dentist’s surgery with a short strip of clipped lawn in front of the wall and the bland perfunctory garden of a business behind it.
Some houses we cannot see; they exist behind walls and electric gates. We hear the tic-tic of their garden sprays and imagine neat lawns of green; flowerbeds overflowing; doors closed against the cold; hot food; the lull of television; warmth. Sometimes we pass huge plots with tennis courts and swimming pools and jungle gyms and swings; where earlier in the afternoon, nannies in smart uniforms sat with toddlers in puddles of sunshine on lush green grass and where now fierce dogs growl and bark behind high fences and closed gates; where notices give warning of alarmed premises and armed response units ready to be deployed. Enormous houses tower above us, like fairy-tale castles with their many rooms and roofs and chimneys, reaching up and up and up, competing with the surrounding jacarandas and eucalyptus trees, while fountains of multi-coloured bougainvillea spill over six foot walls lined with razor wire and through electric fences that zing softly in the dying light.
Outside one, a lawn stretches from the gate to the road’s edge – a piece of soft manicured emerald, an unusual sight in drought-ridden Bulawayo. Suddenly, my daughter runs at it with her usual childish gusto.
‘I’m a fairy!’ she cries, opening her arms wide and flapping them up and down. ‘I’m off to the Magic Wood.’
She runs and tumbles, glorying in the smooth green velvet. ‘I’m off . . . off. . .’ she intones, turning round and round. I stand and watch, basking in motherly pride, but aware, too, of the walk home, the gathering darkness. It is then that she grabs my hand and pulls me along with her, and suddenly I am flying, too. We flutter, we jump, we soar and swoop. Across the grass and back, close to the wall and the shut-fast gate and back down to the road.
‘I’m a fairy and you’re a pixie,’ she shouts, commanding the situation. ‘Fairies can fly higher than pixies.’
‘Ah, but pixies are cleverer than fairies,’ I say, as I run up and down the grass verge.
‘No, they aren’t!’ she insists. ‘And, anyway, fairies live in flowers and pixies live in toadstools and I think flowers are better.’
‘Let’s fly home,’ I say. ‘Let’s see if pixies or fairies fly faster.’
And so we are on our way home. The sun slips orange over the horizon as generators whirr into life and electric lights flicker on. Garden sprays are off and gardeners have long ago wound in hosepipes and gone home. Maids have returned to their own children who, heavy with sleep, catch glimpses of their mothers as strange visiting angels before their eyelids close. The old dog and his companion will have reached home a while ago.
Past the Magic Stream with the boats lined up to go to Fairyland and the goblin chuckling with menace as he scuttles off to hide amongst the used sanitary towels and broken glass; past the giant who pokes at his fire and then rocks back and forth, talking all the time to his invisible servant. Past Cinderella who has packed up her stall and returned to her duties inside the house. Past the witch’s house where the chickens are now in their coop and the stolen children are in their beds and the dog growls menacingly but without enthusiasm.
By the time we get home, the world is grey with twilight. Our house stands dark and impassive. If we are lucky, the power will be back within the hour; if we aren’t, we can hope for it in the morning. I open the door and reach for the candle and matches strategically placed on a shelf round the corner of the door jamb.
The night stretches before us, cold and dark. Rosie is tired now and hungry. She forgets the litany of fairy tales as easily as a piece of litter dropped into the Magic River. I warm milk on the gas ring and cut some sandwiches for supper. By candlelight, we read another story of witches and fairies. We fall into bed, Rosie heavy with sleep, holding my hand tightly against her chest until she drifts off and her grip loosens. I lie awake, imagining that the glimmer of generator-fuelled lights from my neighbour’s house are but fairy lights floating in the darkness of the Magic Forest; that our tiny home is a tower that stretches up, up, up into the air, commanding mystery and majesty and wonder in all who pass it by.
I am Rapunzel in my room, letting down my hair every evening, watching it cascade in a blue-black waterfall through the feathery gauze of night, wondering if some handsome prince will make himself known tonight and set out through the forest, sword in hand, slashing through the thorns till he reaches the cold stone wall of my tower and stares up at the dark window far above him.
Or I am a princess in a many-turreted castle with a rose-filled garden that stretches all the way to the cliff’s edge and a high wall that no one can climb over and fierce dogs that guard the gate. I have children who spend long, hot afternoons tumbling on pea-green lawns or sailing boats in the pond whilst kept out of harm’s way by a host of nannies and maids and gardeners while I dine at banquet tables that overflow with food and wine.
The generator next door switches off for the night and a cold black silence descends. I return to the room alone, folding myself back into my broken dreams. I imagine Cinderella threading her needle and settling down to chat to her animal friends. I envy the Giant his invisible servant and the ancient dog his ancient keeper. But I am happy, for although my tower is tall and dark and lonely, I have not forgotten how to sprout wings and fly. I have never stopped believing in the magic that will one day pick you up off your feet and let you glide and flutter and swish and swirl and take you off to places you never imagined existed and yet always, always, bring you home safely to the tower at the end of the road.

 I settle under the covers and take Rosie’s small hand in mine, listening to her soft rhythmic breathing. Satisfied: the darkness is kept at bay.

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